New tests will help keep roads safer for all

Nov 21, 2012

A valuable tool used by law enforcement officers to keep impaired drivers off the roadways is the standardized field sobriety testing.

If an officer suspects impairment, he or she can stop a vehicle and ask the driver to stand on one leg, walk a straight line, heel to toe and follow a penlight with their eyes.

All are part of the standard field sobriety tests used across the nation.

While taking the test is not mandatory, those refusing can be arrested for cause, and a blood sample can be drawn to detect alcohol or drug impairment. Those refusing the test also automatically lose their driving privileges for 30 days.

However, many drivers stopped were able to skirt the field sobriety tests due to a variety of excuses. A bad back, balance issues or leg and foot problems are common excuses. One woman was able to convince a judge she was unable to take the test because her feet hurt after she’d been shopping all day, and she simply couldn’t walk straight in high heels.

The problem is compounded for fish and wildlife officers. Walking and standing on water is impossible, and performing the tests adequately in a boat are next to impossible.

That’s why a new sobriety test that allows drivers (or boaters) to remain seated while performing actions such as placing their finger on the end of their nose with eyes closed or a series of hand movements while counting is an even more valuable tool.

Officers from across the region attending a training session in Waynesville recently seemed excited about getting certified to perform the new tests.

One officer estimated the availability of a seated test should eliminate about half the excuses made to avoid the test.

The test was initially developed for wildlife and marine law enforcement officers to assess possibly impaired boaters. Since then, officers in other local and state law enforcement agencies are getting certified to perform the seated sobriety tests.

In addition to training law enforcement officers, the session included those in the district attorney offices who need to understand how the test works so it can be used effectively to prove a case in court.

A citizen group, Mothers Against Drugged Driving, played an integral role in helping bring the training session to Haywood County. That group is lead by Ellen Pitt, the MADD representative for WNC.

Pitt has worked tirelessly to keep impaired drivers off the road through everything from educational sessions for students to supporting for families who have lost loved ones because of impaired drivers on the road. Pitt would fall into the bulldog category when it comes to following impaired driving cases in the district, all the way down to the court process, where she sits in on each procedure and learns what’s needed to solve the problem.

She is a staunch advocate of seated sobriety testing and is delighted there will be one more assessment tool to help officers determine whether impairment exists and lead to safer roads.

We couldn’t agree more. Too many innocent lives have been lost or inalterably changed because of those who are driving when they shouldn’t.